Collapse in the West, Recovery in the East

The Romans had always relied upon recently defeated enemies to provide the next generation of Roman-soldiers. Barbarian tribesmen were recruited to employ their ferocity against the Empire’s foes. In this frenzied scene from Trajan’s Column, an auxiliary infantryman fights on, whilst holding the severed head of a previous Dacian victim by the hair between bis teeth. The use of barbarian soldiers was nothing new in Late Antiquity.

In 418 a group based around the Gothic tribes which had destroyed Valens’ army was settled by treaty on land which was to become the Visigothic kingdom of Aquitaine. For the first time, but not the last, the western emperor acknowledged the existence of a king within the provinces, who supplied troops fighting under their own leaders and not as part of the regular army. The term foederati increasingly came to be used for soldiers fighting for Rome under this type of arrangement, rather than as a general term for foreign recruits in regular units. The Goths had proved too strong to destroy, but they were also a tempting source of recruits for emperors starved of readily available military manpower. They had sometimes fought against Rome, but more often on her behalf in both foreign and civil wars, although the distinction between the two was often blurred; they were also sent against the Vandals in Spain, another group of barbarians who had established themselves within the Empire. Isolated in an often alien environment, and commanded by a series of strong war leaders who operated both within and outside the hierarchy of the Roman army, the Visigoths had become more united than most tribal peoples. There is a fierce debate over whether their experiences after crossing the Danube created or merely accelerated this process.

The Roman Empire in ad 418

The Roman Empire in ad 418 was divided into many small provinces and regions. Many of the army units listed for each command may have existed only in theory or been mere skeletons.

Later in the century other peoples emulated the Visigoths in establishing kingdoms within the provinces, either by force or treaty. In 429 the Vandals took Africa, denying the western emperor access to its large revenue and rich recruiting grounds. Later, Franks and Burgundians settled in Gaul, while the Ostrogoths overran Italy. In the short term some of these groups were used to bolster an emperor’s power, but in the longer term they promoted the final collapse of central authority. The western emperors were no longer able to enforce their will or guarantee protection to the provinces still loyal to them, which in turn encouraged frequent local usurpations. The infrastructure to support a large, well-trained army, and to control and supply it in the field was no longer there. Some high-quality units still existed and displayed their skill in the low-level warfare in which the later army excelled, but the number of such troops was dwindling. The army which Aetius led to blunt the onslaught of Attila’s Huns at Chalons was largely composed of foederati. The western empire fell when central authority collapsed, and in its place emerged numerous smaller states based on a mixture of barbarian and Roman institutions, whose power and prosperity were dwarfed by comparison with the Rome of even a century before.

In the east the emperors’ power remained strong. The culturally more coherent, densely populated and prosperous eastern provinces were able to maintain a large and efficient army. This preserved the balance of power on the frontier with Persia. In the sixth century the last real attempt at regaining the lost provinces in the west was made when Justinian sent armies under gifted generals such as Belisarius and Narses to destroy the Vandals in Africa and the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy. Although the campaigns were successful, in the long term it proved impossible for the Romans to retain control of the old provinces around the Mediterranean. The Empire’s resources were sufficient for its defence, but utterly inadequate for overseas conquest.

A coin and medallion commemorating the reconquests of Justinian I (с. AD 483-565). Through able generals such as Belisarius and Narses, the emperor attempted to restore his authority in Africa and Italy.

The army of the sixth century represented the culmination of many of the trends already observed in the army of late antiquity. Many soldiers were under arms and included on the Imperial army’s strength, but forces in the field were seldom large. Belisarius landed in Africa with only sixteen thousand men, and his first expeditionary force to Italy numbered half that total. Armies of twenty-five thousand or more were exceptionally rare. A late sixth-century military manual, Maurice’s Strategikon, discussed armies of five to fifteen thousand men, but clearly viewed forces towards the lower end of this scale as the norm, and believed twenty thousand men to be an unusually large force. The basic unit consisted of two to five hundred men led by a tribune, several of these combining to form a moira, commanded by a dux in battle. The larger armies often proved difficult for their commanders to control before and during a battle, and several defeats were blamed on undisciplined troops who had forced their general to risk battle unnecessarily. In a pitched battle the traditional Roman emphasis on using reserves still dominated military doctrine, although it was rare for the whole army to be divided into several lines of roughly equal size and composition. The late fourth-century theorist Vegetius had recommended avoidance of battle unless the circumstances were very favourable indeed, but the author of the Strategikon was even more cautious and advocated it only as a last resort. Theory was reflected in practice, with the conflicts of this period tending to be long, but including very few massed actions. Campaigns in both east and west were dominated by raids, skirmishes and sieges. In the wars with Persia the border fortresses continued to play a dominant role as bases from which mobile columns set out to plunder enemy territory. It is unlikely that either side ever thought in terms of total victory, realizing that they no longer possessed the necessary resources. The Persians’ main objective was often to exact a sizeable payment from the Romans in return for peace, money which helped the Sassanid monarch to maintain his position and defend against attacks by the Huns from the Caucasus to the north. The control of the border fortresses remained of central importance and the Roman decision to build a new stronghold at Dara, directly opposite Persian controlled Nisibis, was viewed as a provocative act.

The division between the limitanei and comitatenses remained, although some of the latter became permanently garrisoned in frontier strongholds and may have differed little from the border troops. Units of foederati in the eastern army were little different from the ordinary comitatenses, being paid and fed by the state and serving under Roman appointed officers. The main distinction was that they included a higher proportion of barbarian recruits. The best element of field armies was often provided by the bucellarii who, although they took an oath of loyalty to the emperor, were effectively the household troops of the senior commanders. A successful leader such as Belisarius amassed several thousand of these soldiers and trained them to a high level of efficiency. The bucellarii also included a pool of officers who might be employed to command army units. In addition there were allied contingents, most commonly Arabs or Saraceni in the wars with Persia. These fought both with the field armies and independently when hired to raid the emperor’s enemies.

The great aqueduct supplying the Roman colony at Caesarea on the coast of Judaea. Originally built by Herod the Great, the aqueduct was restored and substantially widened by a vexillation of Legio X Fretensis during the reign of Trajan. The inscription recording this work is still in situ on one of the arches. Some of the finest engineers in the Empire were numbered amongst the ranks of the legions, and they were often called in to undertake or supervise building projects. However, in the late Empire, the resources and willingness to undertake such major works were less common. Running parallel with the Roman aqueduct is the line of the subterranean Byzantine aqueduct. This was a reasonably effective way of supplying water to the city, but far less visually spectacular.

The strength of the sixth-century army was undoubtedly its cavalry. The majority were equipped equally for shock action or for fighting from a distance. These horsemen wielded lance or bow as the situation demanded, but although the riders were heavily armoured, their horses do not seem to have been protected. The Strategikon emphasized the need for cavalry to charge in a disciplined manner, always maintain a reserve of fresh troops, and be careful not to be drawn into a rash pursuit. Bucellarii were normally cavalry, and by their nature horsemen were more suited than foot soldiers to the raids and ambushes which dominated the warfare of this period. The sixth-century cavalryman was far more likely to experience combat than his infantry counterpart. In a large- scale action a well-balanced mix of horse and foot was still the ideal, but the Roman infantry of this period had a very poor reputation. In part this was a result of their inexperience, but they often seem to have lacked discipline and training. Narses used dismounted cavalrymen to provide a reliable centre to his infantry line at Taginae. At Dara Belisarius protected his foot behind specially prepared ditches. Roman infantry almost invariably fought in a defensive role, providing a solid base for the cavalry to rally behind. They did not advance to contact enemy foot, but relied on a barrage of missiles, javelins, and especially arrows, to win the combat. All units now included an element of archers and it was claimed that Roman bows shot more powerfully than their Persian counterparts. The front ranks of a formation wore armour and carried large round shields and long spears, but some of the ranks to the rear carried bows. Infantry formations might be as deep as sixteen ranks. Such deep formations made it difficult for soldiers to flee, but also reduced their practical contribution to the fighting, and were another indication of the unreliability of the Roman foot soldier. The Strategikon recorded drill commands given in Latin to an army that almost exclusively spoke Greek. There were other survivals of the traditional Roman military system, many of which would endure until the tenth century, but the aggressive, sword-armed legionary was now a distant memory.

This fragment of a frieze now in the Louvre probably dates to the reign of Marcus Aurelius and shows Roman soldiers attacking a barbarian village. Punitive expeditions in which bouses were burnt, cattle confiscated and slaves taken were standard practice for the Roman army of most periods.

The End of the Empire

The collapse of central authority in the west had encouraged the trend towards increasingly small-scale warfare. Local warlords and landowners, who based their power on the number of armed retainers they controlled, flourished. One of the reasons why archaeologists have found so few traces of the devastation supposedly wrought by barbarian invaders is that most of these moved in relatively small bands whose depredations affected only a small area. The fragmentation of political power ensured that there were seldom enough soldiers stationed in one area or concentrated in field forces free to range throughout the provinces to oppose successfully all the groups of invaders, or overawe the tribes that had been settled inside the Empire.

The basic pattern that warfare would assume for the next thousand years, at least in Europe, had already been set in the late Roman period. Medieval warfare was characterized by raids and skirmishes, frequently revolving around the possession of fortified strongholds. The pitched battle was a relatively rare occurrence, and the idea of the decisive battle had lost the central place which it had occupied in earlier antiquity. Vegetius, the fourth-century military theorist who had been one of the first Roman authors to advocate the avoidance of battle, remained highly popular throughout the Middle Ages. The Byzantine army endured and preserved many of the traditions of the professional Roman army, but in the west no kingdom possessed the strong central authority or the wealth to support a large permanent army of uniformed, drilled and disciplined soldiers.

There had been a close relationship between the army and political life from very early on in Rome’s history, when political rights were granted to those able to equip themselves to fight in the main battle line. Under the Principate, when the emperors had taken care to ensure that the army was personally loyal, its senior commanders had still been drawn from the ranks of Rome’s aristocracy. In the third century this connection had been broken and the army’s generals were career soldiers serving permanently with the army and owing their progress entirely to Imperial favour. Gradually the hatred and fear which the prosperous, literate classes had always felt towards the professional soldier was extended to his officers. The army now made and maintained an emperor in his position, and the wishes of even the wealthiest sections of the rest of society counted for little. There was little to check the regionalism of troops stationed for long periods in one area, and often recruited there as well, since the generals were no longer serving for a short tour, nor drawn from a central pool without regional ties. Civil war after civil war sapped the Empire’s strength and further encouraged the growth of local powers who could offer protection to a region.

The Roman amphitheatre at the colony of Sarmizegethusa Ulpia, founded by Trajan as the capital of the new Dacian province. The area was abandoned in the third century, but in the fifth century some local warlord converted the arena into a fortified position.

Overleaf: The buildings outside the late first-century fort at Vindolanda in Northumbria included what is believed to be a mansio or way station used to accommodate important travellers. In the foreground is the small bath bouse provided for these men. Bath houses, especially in civilian settlements and villas were one of the first things to fall into disrepair in late Antiquity. The technical knowledge to build and maintain these was no longer as widespread as it had been amongst the army of the Principate.

Morale obviously has had massive significance throughout military history, but this was especially true when battles were decided by massed, hand-to-hand fighting. One defeat often prompted another since troops who had lost their confidence could rarely stand up to the pressures of close combat no matter how superior their training, organization or tactics were to those of the enemy. The difficulty of restoring soldiers’ belief in the possibility of success after a series of defeats was demonstrated by conflicts as separated in time as the Numantine war and the early sixth-century campaigns with Persia. It was not just this tactical dimension which suffered from a series of defeats. At a strategic level the Romans relied on the domination of their neighbours, securing the Empire’s frontiers through overawing the peoples outside by creating an impression of overwhelming might. Defeats seriously weakened this facade of Roman strength and meant that the Romans had to fight very hard to recreate it. From the middle of the third century onwards the Romans were never able to restore the situation fully, a trend which was marked by the abandonment of the relentless pursuit of total victory that had been the traditional hallmark of Roman military practice. The insecurity of the later emperors made this attitude impractical.

The western empire did not fall, nor did the east endure because of the results of a few decisive battles. The external threats to Rome were unconcerted and sporadic, and not enough in themselves to have destroyed the Empire. The professional Roman army was capable of defeating any of the opponents faced in Late Antiquity as long as it was given the resources of men and material to do so. The failure of the Roman state to control the professional army, and in particular its officer corps, steadily destroyed the central power that controlled the infrastructure necessary for the army to function. The institutions of the Roman army gradually disappeared in a process lasting centuries, but the idea of the professional army would later have a great impact on the rise of modern warfare in the Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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